Representation 13: Chinese representations of rural/urban people: the principle of difference again

Nimen Hao,

this lesson gives one more example of a form of representation.

Today we’re going to talk about China’s rural/urban divide, by looking at some of the ways that rural villagers have been represented in the recent past in China.

Time permitting, we will also look at and discuss. some representations of migrant workers and graduate migrants.

First, let’s do an exercise in talking about representations.

How are rural people and rural migrants represented?

  • How do you picture or imagine rural people and rural migrants? Can you describe some characteristics, images, or behaviors (for example, habits) that are associated with rural people and rural migrants?
  • Are these your ideas, drawn from your own observations? Or do they come from other sources of representation? Tell us where the ideas come from.

Representing rural people in film.

Li Yang’s 2007 film Blind Mountain Mang Shan’s title drew on these kinds of representations in telling a story of forced marriage in a farming community. Mang Shan’s story of bride trafficking is set in rural northwest China in the early 1990s.

The film’s protagonist “Bai Xuemei” is a recent graduate searching for work in order to pay her parents back for their investment in her education.

A professional-looking urban couple recruits her to assist with their “rare herb gathering” business. However, her new employers have tricked her: There is no job and she has in fact been sold to a rural family (the “Huang’s”) in order to provide a wife for their son “Huang Degui”.

mang shan screenshot welcome
Dialogues: screenshot 1: “Your family sold you to be my son’s wife”. 2. “the fact is I bought you for 7,000”.

Let’s have a look at how this fictional rural community is represented in Mang Shan, using some clips and some summarizing comments.

In this first clip, Xue Mei has just woken, and thinks he employers have gone to do something and will return for her.

Clip 1: Where’s Manager Wu? (07.00-08.30)

Clip 2. 11.30-12.30 De Gui, you’re a good person …

The young woman is sold without her consent; once the trafficker and customers have made their deal, she is not free to leave.

The early scenes establish the rural context in which women of marriageable and child-rearing age and extremely rare, and indicate the high value placed on such women by the community and family (the 7,000 rmb paid for the “bride” in the early 1990s representing a large sum for a farming family).

mang shan wedding night a
Wedding night curiosity
mang shan wedding night b
Wedding night toasts. Dialogue screenshot 1: “Drink or remain a bachelor”. 2. “Drink up or else no women in your next life either”.

Clip 3. 12.30-14.42  take care of business …

The film goes onto show the village and family trying to make “Xuemei” will submit, to fulfill the role of wife, including sex, marriage, bearing and raising a child. De Gui too, must fulfil village and family expectations.

  • The “Huang’s” (her parents-in-law) physically restrain her in order to help their son “Degui” rape and hopefully impregnate her.
  • Villagers work together to prevent her attempted escape and reject the price offered by her father for her release. The local governor stands by and allows the villagers to prevent her escape.

Clip 4 01.14.50=01.16  hit me not the baby

The Huangs value Xue Mei because she can give their family a child. When she becomes pregnant she makes friends with other young mothers who turn out to have also been purchased and have generally come to accept their situation. However Xue Mei doesn’t accept, and still wants to run away, and has tried to get the police to contact her father to rescue her.

Let’s see how the film ends:

Clip 6: 01.29 -police, give me the baby

In The film’s climax the Huang family and the villagers are able to prevent the policemen from forcibly effecting her escape. “Mrs. Huang” prevents “Xuemei” from taking her child.

whose baby is it
Dialogues: Screenshot 1: “This is my baby”. 2. “The cops are taking the baby”. 3 “Leave the baby”.

The police advise her to let Mrs. Huang have the child (“for the time being”) so that they may leave safely. However, they are unable to do so as “Xuemei’s” husband  “Degui” and the villagers accost the police and argue their case:

Dialogues: Screenshot 1. “It is illegal to steal away her rights. 2. “Many people buy wives. Have they all broken the law? 3. If she pays me back, then she can go.

The villagers refuse the police suggestion that the legal rights of the individual woman (the trafficked victim) outweigh to raise another generation of children, which they can only do through purchased marriage.

who is mangliu
Dialogues: Screenshot 1. “Get out of the way. We have to leave today”. 2. “Someone help!”

In the film’s final shots, “Xuemei” stops “Degui” beating her father by hacking him with a cleaver, not long after she has called the villagers barbaric.

Discussion 2: Mang Shan and mang liu.

  • Did you know of mangliu (an older term) used to describe rural people and rural to urban migrants?
  • How are the Huangs and the other villagers represented in Mang Shan?

Urban versus rural (representations that change over time)

Representations of rural people and rural migrants have changed over time, and been coded by the principle of difference (for example, urban versus rural).

Historically, some of the changes are as follows.

  • The pre-modern Qing empire, the Chinese countryside was often portrayed as ideal and superior, rather than inferior to the city (Whyte and Parish 1984: 10-16).
  • 19th century Orientalism: Opium War in 1840, however, the coastal cities became penetrated by the European influences, opened to foreign trade and started growing rapidly. Chinese cities (particularly Shanghai) as ‘global’, and the urban dwellers as modern, in contrast to rural China and to the rural migrants in the city (Yeh 1997: 380, 382)
  • Communist anti-feudalism: Communist government that sought to remake the countryside into a new society (Cohen 1993: 152-154; Mao 1940), the category of ‘peasant’ (nongmin) was appropriated to depict a part of society increasingly perceived as ‘feudal’, ‘backward’ and in dire need of transformation. Urban” represented advanced, cultured, and superior, and “rural” meant backward, “uncultured,” and inferior (Whyte, 2010, p. 16).

Two of the key policies were the hukuo (1955) and the Marriage Law 1950.

The Hukou tied rural people to the rural registration, denying them social rights in the cities, thus enabling their use a temporary workers, similar to how western countries have used foreign workers.

The Marriage Act made wife selling and dowries a crime, and was designed to overcome ‘feudal’ practices, to force rural people to enact gender equality.

  • Reform era. Rural people migrating en masse. Rural people and rural migrants have been represented as Mangliu, nogmingong, as well as dagong, dagongmei.

The word “peasant” (nongmin) has often had negative connotations, either implying ignorance and lack of education or carrying a patronizing tone, addressing passive masses receiving benevolence from the rulers. Nongmingong takes this negative representation and reinforces the idea that the worker is ultimately rural (and must return to her/his rural place).

Mangliu, which is used to describe the floating population, means vagrant or misfeasance. It was popularised in the media from the late 1980s onwards, describes an irrational, senseless and out-of-control migration. Mangliu is a homophonic inversion of liumang, a pejorative expression roughly equivalent to “hooligan”. Representations of mangliu gave the idea of urban communities needing protection from the moral pollution and crimes of rural migrants.

Media described mangliu as only interested in money, being too ignorant to sign contracts, likeley to be involved in crime (including the rape of urban women) and generally having a low cultural level.

Their low level is represented as a moral failure, it is their own fault, and it is therefore their responsibility to educate themselves (or civilize themselves) to a higher level.

Rural-urban (cultural) racism

Some academics describe the representations of rural people and rural migrants and the practices that match those representations as a form of cultural racism.

Solinger (1999), for example, drew a parallel between migrant workers in China and racial groups in the West, stating that ‘the Chinese peasants’ lot in the city was much more akin to that of black people in South Africa before the 1990s or of blacks and Asians in the United States throughout the first half of the twentieth century’.

  • denied access to public services in the cities due to the hukou (household registration) system,
  • disadvantaged in terms of access to the quality of education necessary for equitable competition in society
  • excluded from the property advantages of ownership in first tier cities
  • subjected to day-to-day exclusion and abuse; talked to and shouted at like children in public places; banned from hotel lobbies and posh restaurants; open discrimination against rural migrants, the “No Dogs or Chinese” signs put up by western colonialists in the 1920s and 1930s have been replaced by the “No Dogs or Peasants” signs at shopping malls in the cities.

The argument was not simply that rural migrants are similar to American Black people, but that the urban or elite way of representing and treating rural migrants is racialising, it constructs or makes an inferior other group (mangliu, nonmingong). In terms of representation this racializing often involves stereotypes and stigmatizing.


Attributing overgeneralising characteristics to a group

For example

All Shanghairen love money more than culture

All peasants are simple, warm and friendly

All Sichuanren are fiery, hot-tempered


Goffman (1963), a stigma is a powerful negative social label, stemming from a discrediting attribute of the individual, which radically changes their social identity. The term stigma originated from Ancient Greeks, and it referred to bodily signs (cuts, burns) purposefully designed to expose something unusual and bad about the moral status of the signifier, thus providing a type of marker that denoted pollution or deviation from normalcy.

Stigmatizing is a social construction that involves at least two fundamental components: (1) the recognition of difference based on some distinguishing characteristic, or ?mark, which is often a stereotype; and (2) a consequent devaluation of the person (Todd, 2000).

Goffman (1963) distinguished three different varieties of stigma or stigmatizing conditions:

1.abominations of the body, ?physical deformities;

2. blemishes of individual character, ?mental disorders, addictions, unemployment;

3. tribal identities, ?race, sex, religion, or nation.

Discussion 4. Rural stereotypes and stigma

The racializing of rural people and rural migrants might be said to work through stereotypes and stigmas.

What are some of the stereotypes and markers of stigma?

Reading the Ant People photo-essay

Have a look at the photo essay titled China’s “Ant Tribe” Lives In The World’s Most Cramped Apartments. The essay brings together a range of journalist’s photos of urban migrant workers and graduate’s living conditions.

Discussion 5: the condition of the Ant People and Rat tribes

  • Discuss how the migrant workers and migrant graduates and their living conditions are represented in the images and texts (the cartoon, the weibo discussion).

Suzhi, guanxi and hukuo: limits for migrant graduates

Sometimes translated as human ‘quality’, suzhi can refer to one’s morality, intelligence, education and many other elements in relation to character and ability.

References to suzhi justify social and political hierarchies of all sorts, with those of ‘‘high’’ quality gaining more income, power and status than the ‘‘low’’’ (Kipniss, 2006, p.295). While the countryside is linked to backwardness, rural residents are defined by their lack of, or low levels of, suzhi. They are regarded by biased city dwellers as of ‘low quality’, including low ‘physical quality’, ‘scientific and cultural quality’ and ‘quality of understanding notions’ (Pils n.d., p. 31). Biased media depict them as being unqualified to live in the cities for both cultural and moral reasons (Florence 2006),

People’s ability to pursue social and existential mobility are limited by rural/urban (hukou), suzhi, guanxi and other forms of status inequality. For example, Researchers observe that many rural graduates (bìyè sheng) from Beijing universities work in low-pay jobs because they are not regarded as having good “quality” (suzhi) by professional employers, and lack good connections (guanxì).

The following are stories told to an academic for her study of graduates who had migrated to study and then work in Beijing. Read the two stories and then discuss the questions below.

Jing Jing’s story (Bregnbaek, 2016)

1.Jing Jing’s maternal grandparents arranged a marriage between her mother and father. They wanted their daughter to marry He because he had a good peasant background and was a devoted revolutionary. However, he was arrested during Deng Xiaoping’s rule because he had belonged to the Maoist political factions and spent the next 12 years in prison.

In 1990 Jing Jing was sitting her college entrance exams when her father was released from gaol. He had become bitter and took his anger out on his wife. Jing Jing became unhappy because of the conflict, tried to run away, and also to commit suicide. After that her mother kowtowed to her and begged her to not do so again. She failed her exams but her mum bribed an official and she was able to resit them the next year. She passed with a low mark and got accepted to study at the University of the Minorities in Kunming. She did a Masters in English and received one of the highest scores in the university. But she felt that the university was low status, so applied to study law at Tsinghua in Beijing, one of the county’s highest status universities. It was an achievement to be accepted as the competition was fierce. So she started the law degree in Beijing, living a two-day train journey away from her hometown.

Her mum had encouraged Jing Jing to pursue higher education  but now wanted her to settle down, get married and start a family. She went home to visit at Spring festival and discovered that her family had hidden her mu’s serious illness from her, so she wouldn’t worry. Her parents and her sister had been sending her money to help her support herself while studying, instead of spending money on her mum’s medical treatment. She felt really guilty, but continued studying thinking it was the best way to be able to support her mum later on. So she was very disappointed when she couldn’t get a job after she graduated.

Jing Jing had a good Tsinghua degree, and her first degree. She thought she should be able to get a good civil service job, but couldn’t. She felt the reason was bei nan dang …. she needed to be from Beijing, male and a party member to have better luck. She even thought that her father’s prison sentence might be a factor.

One year later though,  she found a job in a foreign company in Beijing, and got married to a Beijingren. They planned for Jing Jing’s mum to come a live with them in their Beijing apartment.  Unfortunately, Jing Jing’s mum became very sick again. This time she went back to her hometown to look after her mum, for several months before she died. By doing so she lost her job in the foreign company (she was away for many months). Still she blamed herself for not having looked after her mum in the last years of her mum’s life.

Bai Gang’s story

2. Bai Gang’s parents were peasant fieldworkers and like Jing Jing’s parents they sacrificed a lot for him to be able to go to university in Beijing to study law. He had to work part-time in a restaurant to support himself. That made him different from the Beijing resident students who often went out and spend money on themselves. He felt the urban and highly educated Beijing students had a kind of confidence he lacked. They seemed friendly but he felt like an outsider, and less than their equal. He felt that Beijingren looked down on rural migrant students because they hadn’t had access to the same things growing up. He felt a need to develop an open mind and become accustomed to modern life (like consuming, artistic abilities) like his urban peers.

Bai Gang felt indignant that people cannot move freely around the country, that rural students could only stay in Beijing on the basis of their temporary student resident permit, and would have to return home if they couldn’t find a job with an employer who would sponsor their urban household residence permit.

He didn’t have any good connections (guanxi) in Beijing. He joined the Party to try to cultivate some, but that didn’t work, and his parents were upset as in their experience Party officials were corrupt and part of the reason that the rural areas remained poor while the east coastal cities became rich.

Bai Gang graduated and stayed in Beijing looking for work. But he couldn’t find a good job. Like many graduates with a BA, he found that employers weren’t willing to pay them a salary high enough to survive in Beijing. He believed he could have found a job if he returned to his home area, but wanted to make a life in Beijing. He was upset that he was unable to marry and set up his own family. Like Jing Jing he was unable to grow up and become an independent person who could repay his parent’s sacrifices. He lacked moral standing in his own eyes and those of his parents.

Discussion 6: suzhi, guanxi, migration

Thinking about Chinese rural to urban student and graduate migration involves the use of some Chinese terms that are difficult to translate, but important in Chinese culture and society.

  • How would you explain the term suzhi in relation to rural migrant university graduates? Does their level of suzhi in the eyes of urban elites limit their chances of success? Can rural migrant graduates achieve the level of suzhi they need to succeed and satisfy their families in first tier cities like Beijing?
  • How would you explain the term guanxi in relation to career prospects for rural migrant graduates seeking careers in Beijing? Does having good connections matter? Say why or why not.







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